O dandelion sun!

A big round dandelion arching the sky - what a deep yellow sun this is, and I like the 'light-smitten height' too. 'When the sun, like an immense dandelion, looked over the light-smitten height of Cosdon Beacon, Tarka was returning along a lynch, or rough...

Of bitterns and beaks

A moss stalk and seed likened to a bird and beak.  Lovely. 'Over and under and past boulders of granite, splashing upon mosses, whose browny-red seeds on the tall stalks were like bitterns standing with beaks upheld.'   Source: Henry Williamson, Tarka the...

As silent as …

Another simile for silence, here combined murderously with talons sharp as black frost.  See other silent similes by Williamson and by Charlotte Bronte. 'Silent as snow and fog, staring like the Northern Lights, taloned like black frost, the Arctic Owl...

Of flakes and feathers

How perfect an image for snow-flakes - like swan feathers drifting gently to the ground. Elsewhere, Williamson again uses feathers as a metaphor, to describe the moon. 'As Greymuzzle walked on the ice upstream, snow began to fall in flakes like the...

Wind like liquid glass

An astonishingly limpid description of the clarity a wind pours over a landscape. 'For two days and two nights the frosty vapour lay over the Burrows, and then came a north wind which poured like liquid glass from Exmoor and made all things distinct.'  ...

Tar marks

Otters are voracious piscivores so it's appropriate to liken the black marks they have left to fish-bones. And let's not forget the Greek-based unpronounceable answer to the Latinate piscivore: ichthyophagous.  Save that one for your next spelling test....

 

Someday the history of metaphor will be written and we shall at last grasp all the truths and misconceptions in which this intensely speculative subject abounds.  

 

Source: Jorge Luis Borges, On Writing, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2010, p. 45

Metaphors and similes are an imaginative galaxy which greater minds than mine have explored. That doesn’t stop me gathering dazzling and original examples to enrich the common stock and enliven human exchange, expanding the choice of vigorous and beautiful ways to sharpen how we think, read, write and speak.

Of beetle fragments and spider tunnels

What an intricate way to describe a shipwreck pulled apart by tidal ebb and flow. It also reminds me of the novel by Italo Calvino, The Path to the Spiders' Nests, which describes small grassy gates woven by spiders - see insert. '... a destroyer lay...

Of pebble-play and glass-green

A lasting impression of Tarka the Otter is of the playfulness of these and other creatures. Tarka plays with anything to hand or paw: a water spout, a pebble, a dung-ball, a cocoa can. Here he is intrigued by a water-smoothed glass pebble, and Williamson...

Bright and blinking

An alliterative description of a bone-like beacon. 'The bright eye of the light-house standing like a bleached bone at the edge of the sandhills, blinked in the clear air.'   Source: Henry Williamson, Tarka the Otter: His joyful water-life and death in the...

Poplars in November

Yes, poplars look like giant feathers poked in the ground, here bedraggled by the onset of winter. 'In November the poplars were like bedraggled gull-feathers stuck in the ground.'   Source: Henry Williamson, Tarka the Otter: His joyful water-life and...

As smooth as …

Of course, this simile is obvious when you see it, but have you ever seen it before?  Please try incorporating it into your simile-store. 'Over fall he slid, smooth as oil.'   Source: Henry Williamson, Tarka the Otter: His joyful water-life and death in...

Scent as colour

I like metaphors that use one of our five senses to convey another - here a visual image serves as a metaphor for a scent. And I must still be a child as vivid colours catch my attention more than ever. 'The scents of the ducks were thick and luring as...

A luminous grub

Never have I seen the moon likened to a luminous cocoon-spinning grub... wonderful. 'At night the young moon was like a luminous grub spinning a cocoon around itself in the sky.'   Source: Henry Williamson, Tarka the Otter: His joyful water-life and death...

Of curling waves

Tarka the otter enjoys his first exposure to the sea, with a wave being likened appropriately to a shell-fish. 'A wavelet lifted Tarka and passed behind him, another curled like a long razor-fish shell and broke over him. He shook the water from his...

As serene as …

A novel image for serenity. Use it next time you are describing someone or something serene. 'He was serene as glass.'   Source: Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre (London: Bounty Books, 2012 (1847)), p. 518 Photo credit: MichaelGaida at...

As still as …

So even the regular church-going Victorians only did their duty on Sundays. A nice way to convey stillness - an empty church on a week-day. 'It was as still as a church on a week-day.'   Source: Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre (London: Bounty Books, 2012...

As powerless as …

Bronte has a wonderful range of simile and metaphor, here demonstrated in powerlessness being likened to stubble thrown into a furnace. See also another of her images of vulnerability. 'Physically, I felt, at the moment, powerless as stubble exposed to the...

A quivering of shattered pinions

What a potent, heart-rending image of longing, echoing the Spanish word for lame or broken-winged, aliquebrado. See an earlier image of impotent vulnerability in Jane Eyre. '... only a sad heart broke it. ... it demanded him with ceaseless longing; and,...

Hollow like …

Did you ever think of the sky as being hollow?  I like the image of its domed roundness as the inside of a mussel shell. 'At midnight the western sky was pale blue and hollow like a mussel-shell on the seashore.'   Source: Henry Williamson, Tarka the...

Of merry audacious jays

Two fine metaphors here, describing the nature and the cry of jays, though the first of these is by now no doubt politically incorrect. I like also the 'noise of tearing linen'. 'They were among birds what the Irish are among men, always ready in a merry...

Of kingfisher colours

This description of a Halcyon Kingfisher packs a rainbow of colour metaphors, from pink to green to blue and brown.  Elsewhere the book describes hunted kingfishers strung up sans wings, their exquisite feathers being used for female fashion plumage. And...

Of buds and hooves

Who would think to liken the shape of a bud to the hooves of cattle? And that cuckoo singing all night! 'The buds of the ash, sullen for so long in their coverings shaped like the black hooves of cattle, broke into browny-green sprays.  The cuckoo sang all...

A cord of connection

Here Mr. Rochester conveys his connection to Jane Eyre and the vulnerability it causes inside.  Attachment made physical. '... it is as if I had a string somewhere under my left ribs, tightly and inextricably knotted to a similar string situated in a...

A linnet of hope

Birds are regularly used by Bronte as emblems of vulnerability or fragility - here this small creature is depicted as a source of hope. 'It seemed as if a linnet had hopped to my foot and proposed to bear me on its tiny wing.'   Source: Charlotte...

Of gander and falcon

A surprising juxtaposition of birds to convey a contrast. '... the contrast could not be much greater between a sleek gander and a fierce falcon.'   Source: Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre (London: Bounty Books, 2012 (1847)), p. 247 Photo credit: ilovetattoos...

As lively as …

You can imagine the spark lighting up a prim Victorian drawing room, when the sexes are brought together within a confined space. 'The ladies, since the gentlemen entered, have become lively as larks...'   Source: Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre (London:...

As pale as …

Henry Williamson is a master of metaphor and simile, and his slim book Tarka the Otter is as densely scattered with them as a healthy meadow with flower seeds. 'When the moon gleamed out of the clouds in the east, pale and wasted as a bird in snow, the...

As soft as …

Having never even noticed the buds of the willow, this simile for softness and greyness struck me. How observant of Williamson to store this away as a description of otter's fur.  But then his whole book is an exercise in meticulous and painstaking...

As large as …

An unusual simile for size, here referring to bubbles. Bubbles feature largely in Tarka the Otter, often blown by the otter himself as he swims beneath the water or as an expression of fear. 'Near the bridge the bubbles rose as large as oak-apples.'  ...

Silent as …

Another richly original simile for silence, here attributed to the noiseless movement of a rolling mist. See another silent simile by Williamson, and a mist-related one in Jane Eyre. 'Over the meadow a mist was moving, white and silent as the fringe of...

As noiselessly as …

How many ways to describe quiet? This is one of the most original I have found, along with another describing the silent movement of mist itself and one conveying the lethal approach of an owl. 'They then descended the staircase almost as noiselessly as a...

Of billows and surges

A finely tumultuous image for turbulent and mixed emotions. 'Till morning dawned I was tossed on the buoyant but unquiet sea, where billows of trouble rolled under surges of joy.'   Source: Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre (London: Bounty Books, 2012 (1847)),...

The fore- and after-taste of vengeance

A heady metaphor for the taste of vengeance, followed by the bitter aftertaste. It reminds me of a quotation by Nelson Mandela along the lines that resentment poisons you before it kills your enemy. 'Something of vengeance I had tasted for the first time;...

Equal parts hard and very hard

The appropriately named housekeeper at Jane Eyre's orphanage has qualities the patron of the establishment values. He believes - firmly - that little tikes living on charity need to be regularly reminded how lucky they are to have a crust to eat. Nowadays...

Of globs and blubber

This charming image - of a priest no less - had me searching all kinds of strange photos to illustrate it.  The deep fat fryer won the day. 'He was so fat that globs of blubber formed cocoons around his eyes.'   Source: Nikos Kazantzakis, The Last...

As big as …

A vivid way to vaunt the vastness of vine-fruit. 'The grapes seemed as big as twelve-year old boys.'   Source: Nikos Kazantzakis, The Last Temptation, trans. P.A. Bien (London: Faber and Faber, 1983), p. 502 Photo credit: Free-Photos at...

As vindictive as…

Apologies to all camels if this sullies your good character, but I liked the simile and had fun finding a photo of a camel who might be described as having a vindictive look. '... vindictive as a camel.'   Source: Nikos Kazantzakis, The Last Temptation,...

Of smoke and goats

A refreshing image for a choking smoke.  I tried to find a picture of goats who looked as though smoke might be getting up their nose. 'The smoke was so thick that the goats sneezed seven miles away.'   Source: Nikos Kazantzakis, The Last Temptation,...

All the doors of Israel

It's now a month since I read this book and I still have a burning impression of dazzling light and heat. Here the sun is stalking the Israelites like a lion. The sun came out of the desert like a lion and beat at all the doors of Israel.  See also his...

See me, pity me

Simeon is one of the strongest, most dynamic characters in this vibrantly retold story of Christ's life.  He is Jesus' uncle and the rabbi of Nazareth, and is hanging on to life by sheer force of will because God has told him he will see the Messiah before...

Stars as pearls

Strings of star-pearls draped around a beauteously bejewelled night! 'The stars were strings of pearls around the neck and arms of the night.' For another pearly metaphor, see this from Virginia Woolf's Orlando.   Source: Nikos Kazantzakis, The Last Temptation, trans....

Yeast needed

Liked this way of portraying a skinny, hollowed out man - made without leaven, flat as a pancake. 'A hairless, cross-eyed man with a sharp skinny snout jumped up. He looked as though someone had forgotten to add the yeast when he was kneaded.'   Source:...

God’s royal artery

A compelling way to single out a great river and to map the world's waterways - as so many veins and arteries of their maker. This is part of an alarmingly vivid dream which troubles the crucifix-making son of a carpenter. 'And flowing from one end of the...

The Promised Land

What makes for a promised land?  Name the elements you would choose.  This one has three timeless components, and is rosy-dawn luminous. '... the Promised Land, made up of dew, wind and age-old human desires, and illuminated like a rose by the dawn.' See...

Wrinkled like a raisin

It's obvious when you read it, but we don't tend to use 'wrinkled like a raisin' despite its pleasing alliteration. Let's try to change that! 'A tiny old man, slim, and wrinkled like a raisin, had stood up on tip-toe.' For another view of an old man, and...

Vigorous and well-preserved

A surprising way to describe an old man's forehead, having the roundness and roughness of an oyster shell.  Or might it be alluding to the sand-polished inside smoothness of the shell? 'He was well-preserved and vigorous for his age, and had a forehead...

The Land of Canaan

Kazantzakis seems to have studied - absorbed - the places of the Bible, bringing individual landscapes and particularities vividly to life. I can't recall a land being likened to air, rendering it ethereal and haze-shimmering. '... the Land of Canaan, like...

Of struggle and triumph

This terrific, vital novel was written by Kazantzakis, author of the more famous Zorba the Greek, to share the story of a man who struggled and won.  It seems to have been intended to reassure us that whatever we might struggle with in this life, including...

A star hanging in the east

This novel burns with the heat of the desert and I like this single star's fiery amplitude. '... a single star, large like a mouthful of fire, hanging in the east.'   Source: Nikos Kazantzakis, The Last Temptation, trans. P.A. Bien (London: Faber and...

The desert of Idemea

Lovely likening of the heat-haze quivering of a desert to the rippling pattern-dappled back of a leopard. 'To the south, the quivering desert of Idemea shifted like the back of a leopard.' See also his leonine metaphor for the merciless Biblical sun.  ...

Like a surgeon’s knife

Adam Bede is so far from being like a timid woman that this is striking, and Eliot uses the idea of recoiling from a surgeon's knife to convey the anguished passivity and powerlessness of a powerful, active man when confronted with a wrong he can't act to correct. As...

To listen as to a recurrent music

What a beautiful description of listening out for someone's voice.   Despite Adam's listening for her voice so, it doesn't yet occur to him that he might fall in love with her. And voices, how memorable, individual and yet evanescent they are!  When you remember the...

Fate waiting in the wings

All aglow, this bright afternoon when two characters cross paths, blush, and entwine fates.  Impossible to have any intimation on such an afternoon that it could lead to disaster.  Only the writer senses it, and tries to warn the reader. It would have done no good to...

Departing hope

A grimly compelling way to evoke a louring sky.  Compare this 'departing hope' with Vasily Grossman's description of the rising sun like a burst of hope. 'Under a leaden-coloured sky, with a narrowing streak of yellow, like a departing hope.' Source: George Eliot,...

Worrying like a butter churn

You've surely spent moments and even nights of your life in mind-churning worry, as described here by a women who knew what she was talking about as she managed her own butter churns and other dairy paraphernalia. ‘... and worret myself as if I was a churn wi’ butter...

As wise as …

George Eliot's Adam Bede has two characters who use language vibrantly and robustly, one of whom is the proud and capable farmer's wife, Mrs Poyser.  Here is what she has to say of men who sit in the pub boozing: as wise as cod fish with red faces. I've never seen a...

Prize apples and withered crabs

A vivid juxtaposition of a ruddy, healthy, good-natured farmer and a slim and slippery old squire. 'As he stood, red, rotund, and radiant before the small, wiry, cool, old gentleman, he looked like a prize apple by the side of a withered crab.' Source: George Eliot,...

Of pig’s squeals and bugle tunes

My favourite uncompromisingly demanding schoolmaster, Bartle, side-swiping someone who praises their own use of language. ‘The right language!’ said Bartle Massey, contemptuously.  ‘You’re about as near the right language as a pig’s squealing is like a tune played on...

Steel rod and iron bar

Arthur has the upper hand socially, although morally and physically he is no match for Adam.  But he won the girl Adam loved, for being almost as pretty and flighty as she. 'And Arthur must sink under a well-planted blow of Adam’s, as a steel rod is broken by an iron...

Knitting as twittering antennae

Fast-moving knitting needles clicking and flicking like a crab's antennae. 'Knitting with fierce rapidity, as if that movement were a necessary function, like the twittering of a crab’s antennae.' Source: George Eliot, Adam Bede (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985 (1859)),...

The embers of resentment

How many families or other relationships does this describe?  The embers of resentment suddenly fanned into flame by a passing question or comment?  Pernicious and pointless.  I believe it was Mandela who said that resentment is like swallowing poison and hoping it...

Like ladies’ fat dogs

Here is the marvelous farmer's wife Mrs Poyser, always straight to the point and with an opinion, richly expressed, about everyone and everything.  I loved this dismissal of upper class servants being like ladies' fat dogs, only for show, and useless for anything...

Like a recovered joy

What a beautiful notion, a recovered joy, and as a description for the reappearance of the sun's warmth!  It reminds me of Vasily Grossman's description of the rising sun being like a burst of hope. May you be sun-blessed with recovered joys and bursts of hope. 'The...

Instinct with poetry

A fine and subtle way to depict a look which appears to express more than the person looking is capable of feeling. And I've always been struck when I come across commonplace proverbs and phrases in their original setting, and see how readily they are used by people...

Of husk and nut

Lisbeth, Adam Bede's mother, is both proud and jealous when she senses her son slipping away from her, and she chides him for it, describing him as a ripe nut casting her off like an old husk.  A neat simile, though untrue in this case. ‘She’s nought but th’ old husk,...

A smile like wine

A beautiful use of wine to describe the effect of a smile on a man who loves.  It comes at the end of half a page in which Eliot intricately unravels the games Hetty can play with the hearts of others.  Pretty and pettish and petty, this girl.  Her smile is nothing...

An ounce of knowledge and sixpence of snuff

I love the imperial disdain of this village schoolmaster for those who come to the classroom thinking knowledge is a commodity to be bought by the sixpence worth, like snuff and stuff. 'But I’ll not throw away good knowledge on people who think they can get it by the...

As wise as …

As many court fools were dwarfs, and fools could be wise, I was struck by this reference to being as wise as a dwarf. 'Though looking all the while as wise as a dwarf with a large old-fashioned head and body on the most abbreviated legs.' Source: George Eliot, Adam...

An empty head for the devil to dance in

Bartle Massey runs a night school with a will of iron, and thinks precious little of the half-baked students who turn up to acquire a bit of accountancy. 'And all the while his needle would be going just as fast as if he left his head empty for the devil to dance in.'...

Like an ant carrying a caterpillar

Here the kind and honest Adam Bede goes a-wooing, offering to help Hetty carry a heavy basket.  She's indifferent to his gallantry, as Eliot puts it, not giving two hoots for the details of ant life. ‘... and been as long getting to the house as a little ant carrying...

Of sunlight and apricots

George Eliot refers here to the joy of childhood which we often don't remember consciously, though it is woven into our nature in the same way that an apricot is imbued with the sunlight that ripened it. A delicious, warming metaphor, particularly if you have a soft...

Gutter thinking

This is Bartle Massey, he of the blade-sharp tongue, laying into the so-called students who come to him for learning. 'You go whistling about, and take no more care what you’re thinking of than if your heads were gutters for any rubbish to swill through what happened...

As the acorn cup fits the acorn

Adam Bede is talking with the woman he loves about the woman he will one day love.  First he didn't like the cap she wore as a Methodist preacher, but then he saw her again and found it suited her face perfectly.  He didn't yet know that he would eventually fall in...

Like frost and flowers

An alternative alliteration for describing people as being like chalk and cheese.  Feel free to use it to inject some variety into your phrasing. 'Him and th’ old Squire fit one another like frost and flowers.' Source: George Eliot, Adam Bede (Harmondsworth: Penguin,...

Like a stealing sunbeam

This is as near as upright Mrs. Poyser gets to admitting she's pleased as punch by a compliment just received.  I liked the alliterative 'stealing sunbeam'. '… but a quiet complacency overspread her face like a stealing sunbeam…' Source: George Eliot, Adam Bede...

Give me Irwine every time

A fine pair of metaphors for the differing effects of two men's company - no doubt with whom I'd rather spend an evening, chatting in front of the fire. 'Mr Irwine was like a good meal o’ victual, you were better for him without thinking on it, and Mr Ryde was like a...

Ribbon when the colour’s gone

Mrs Poyner offering up her pithy view of many wives in the neighbourhood, during a good-natured discussion with her husband.  He settles their difference of opinion by assuring her he married well. 'The poor draggle-tails o’ wives you see, like bits o’ gauze ribbin,...

Frivolity folly

This describes pretty Hetty utterly unprepared, and incapable of becoming prepared, for mature, meaningful relationships.  It's also an early intimation of the compassion and succour Dinah will later bring her. 'Like a child hugging its toys in the beginning of a long...

Beware the Bartle blade

Bartle has much learning and little patience with fools or slouchers.  As an example of that cutting tongue, here is what he thinks of university as a means to educate people:  'He says college mostly makes people like bladders - just good for nothing but t' hold the...

As poor as…

Never thought of rats as being poor, but I like the simile, more compelling than the standard 'as poor as a church mouse'.  At least the mouse has a big house. 'If I were as poor as a rat...' Source: George Eliot, Adam Bede (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985 (1859)), p....

Wishy-washy Arthur

Mrs Irwine's all too insightful summary of Arthur's strength of character. 'She thinks your lady-love will rule you as the moon rules the tides.' Source: George Eliot, Adam Bede (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985 (1859)), p. 216 Photo credit: fapro1 at...

As hard as…

Mrs Poyser has strong and generally accurate opinions about the people around her, and she nails Hetty's character in a few lines.  I love pebbles, but not hearts that have their hardness. “It’s my belief her heart’s as hard as a pibble (sic).” See another simile for...

Like ice in a warm ocean

I wish any fears you have, any yearning anxieties, may so melt away.  This is the fine-charactered Dinah, whose quiet strength and warmth comes to the fore in the course of the book. 'Then gradually her fears, yearning anxieties for others, melted away like...

Clean as a snowdrop

We're edging towards snowdrop time, their pristine pendant-petals peeking through the mud and cold, like tiny bright lanterns lighting the way to spring. Here it is Lisbeth, Adam Bede's mother, who is said to be as clean as a snowdrop.  A later reference has her in...

A look of love

This is Lisbeth, mother of Adam Bede, looking closely at the beloved face of Dinah, who would become her daughter-in-law.  She looks for an affirmation of gentleness and purity, which she finds.  Elsewhere, George Eliot describes Lisbeth herself as being 'clean as a...

Peaches rolling together

A delicate and charming way to convey mutual attraction.  It sounds so soft, so harmless and so sweet, yet it presages disaster for the one and shock for the other. 'Such young unfurrowed souls roll to meet each other like two velvet peaches that touch softly and are...

As hard as …

I like this simile for an implacable nature, though in this case, let us mention that Poyser is only implacable in the face of bad farming.  In many other respects he is kind and good-natured.  Later, when he is facing the consequences of others' behaviour, he is in...

Like morning on the flowers

Such a gentle, loving look this implies, but in the end neither of the two lovers wants to take the consequences of their actions. '... whose eyes rested on her like morning on the flowers.' Source: George Eliot, Adam Bede (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985 (1859)), p. 195...

As bad as…

A useful simile for when you want to be left in peace. 'As bad as buzzing insects that will come teasing you on a hot day when you want to be quiet.' Source: George Eliot, Adam Bede (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985 (1859)), p. 200 Photo credit: maxgrafix at...

Flittering superficiality

A sweet way to convey an incapacity for empathy in a self-involved giddy girl.  A butterfly goes about its business, meaning no harm, but oblivious to those around it. 'Young souls, in such pleasant delirium as hers, are as unsympathetic as butterflies sipping...

The influence of climate

In an age of climate change and more extreme 'weather events', this hits home harder than it might have before. 'It was like the influence of climate, which no resistance can overcome.' Source: George Eliot, Adam Bede (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985 (1859)), p. 156...

A picture of the sun

How to convey the impossibility of a person's love being requited! 'He could no more stir in her the emotions that make the sweet intoxication of young love, than the mere picture of a sun can stir the spring sap in the subtle fibres of the plant.' Source: George...

Borne on the evening breeze

In the midst of winter, on a drab-draped day, the memory of flower-garden odour borne on an evening breeze is warming. 'With an odour like that of a flower-garden borne on the evening breeze.' Source: George Eliot, Adam Bede (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985 (1859)), p....

A pretty primrose

Such an original way to convey heart-stopping loveliness, physical that is.  One of the twists of the story is that the girl's radiant beauty encases a petty, giddy, shallow little soul. 'While she set off the pale fragrant butter as the primrose is set off by its...

Crowding the canvas of life

George Eliot can pack a punch - rarely have human beings been so summarily dismissed as pointless wash outs.  May you never have to sit next to such a Miss Irwine and make polite conversation. 'The Miss Irwines were quite superfluous existences, inartistic figures...

The soul as musical range

One of the finest phrases in Chinese is zhi yin, which means 'knower of your music', used to describe someone who understands you deeply, and by implication, a soul-mate.  In a similar vein, Eliot uses musical range and vibration to convey the limits of some souls and...

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